My favorite stretch of mountains in Morocco is called the Anti-Atlas — a rocky, dry stretch of peaks and canyons south and east of Agadir, separated from the main Atlas chain by the massive Souss valley. It’s not on most hikers’ radars. The chain starts in the west with the fun and dramatic peaks around Tafraoute, a city which is trying to transform itself into a hub for adventure sports, and stretches hundreds of miles up through the Jbel Saghro, or ‘Thirsty Mountains’, where nobody ever seems to go.
Most tourists you see around here are German caravanners who for some reason love Tiznit, and sunburnt Australian cyclists and rock climbers. Why choose to go hiking here versus the more dramatic and well-trodden High Atlas?
For starters, nowhere in Morocco will you find people more hospitable than here in the Anti-Atlas. I’ve made a lot of friends around Morocco but nowhere else have I been adopted by an entire village (more on that later).
Secondly, it looks like this:
There is a striking difference of terrain between this region and the other mountain ranges in Morocco. This is because the Anti-Atlas are much older, having been created by the same tectonic movement which created the mountains of America’s eastern seaboard — in geologic terms, the Anti-Atlas are the eastern half of Appalachia. Apparently they were once as high as the Himalaya are today, possibly even higher.
So this is where my trans-Atlas hike began. The story begins in the lovely little city of Tiznit where my friend Idris studies. I’ve been in touch with Idris since 2012. The village where he’s originally from is situated on the far southern edge of the most southerly mountains in Morocco. What better starting point could I choose for a south-to-north hike? Idris couldn’t get away from work to accompany me to his village, and I didn’t want to make my return there without him, so we postponed our visit to the village for the time being. I only caught a glimpse of it as I started the first ascent (of a great, great many) in my journey north.
I didn’t get far on that first day of my hike. I was invited to stop for an evening in a hamlet built awkwardly on a low mountain summit. The sky was threatening rain, so I accepted an offer to stay the night.
I met my host, Sa’id, as he was taking his siesta at the edge of the village. We shared no mutual language, but between Arabic, Tachelhit, French and English, we had perhaps a hundred mutually intelligible words. In Morocco that’s more than enough to spend quality time with someone.
“I have to get back to work; come check it out,” he said. First I helped him wheel a load of red ochre soil up the hill to a tight cluster of houses. Then I followed him into a dark entryway, trying not to trip over livestock as my eyes adjusted. Traditional mountain dwellings in Morocco speak of economy of material, and limitation of indoor space the better to preserve heat. I’m a short guy, but I still struggle with the low timber beams, tiny door frames and narrow staircases. We went upstairs to his ‘bureau‘. Sa’id made tagines for a living. In every street in Fez or Marrakech, and all along roadsides on the touristic routes between landmarks, you see these conical clay cooking dishes piled by the thousands, waiting to be sold. They’re so much a feature of the landscape in developed areas, it was a shock to see firsthand the labor that goes into making them. With the grace of an artist Sa’id threw a lump of ochre clay onto a wheel which he spun with his hand, shaping the dish and lid with geometric precision. I asked if I could take a photo of him in action. “Not if it’s going to go on Twitter or Facebook,” he said. No photos of Sa’id, then. He stopped abruptly when we heard the patter of rain outside, and we ran up another flight of stairs to the roof, where more tagines had been laid out to dry. I helped him carry them inside one by one. We then walked across the village to his house and I was introduced to his family. While his house was modest, the view was spectacular.
There was an impromptu mid-afternoon meal served on my behalf, and then he invited me to walk with him to the buthanut, or grocery shop, which was in a village on the other side of a high valley. We met a friend of his along the way, who joined up with us as if a trip to the shop had been their plan all along. Moroccans are hypersocial creatures for whom an introspective walk in the hills can always be improved by company. The wind and rain were blowing with gusto, and the three of us were bundled up in headscarves and wool jellabas. We had to shout to make ourselves heard as we walked. They were curious about my views on Islam. I explained:
“I don’t reject Islam; I’m curious about it. I need to learn about the Quran, learn about the Bible and Judaism before I know what to believe,” I told them. Sa’id was quick to reply:
“The Quran will still be true whether you like what you read or not. Yeah, it’s important to educate yourself, but it’s one thing to say “I don’t like what I’m reading” and quite another to say “I don’t believe what I’m reading. The Prophet himself, peace be upon him, was uncomfortable with some revelations.”
I’m extrapolating a bit from what was only a few words and a lot of hand gestures, but Sa’id was a deft communicator. Then Sa’id’s friend asked me a question:
“If you don’t pray, how do you find comfort when you’re scared or worried?”
I replied, “I don’t ask for divine help with my problems. I merely thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. Thanks, God, for giving me the intellect to finish my college degree; thanks for giving me the strength to walk from Tiznit to Fez. You get the idea.”
Maybe they didn’t. I’m a lousy communicator.
We reached the shop. It was a clean, well-lighted place with the usual wall stacked with sardines and cooking oil, and a single table around which half a dozen men were playing cards and sipping coke through their mustaches. Said and his friend approached the shopkeeper and I saw what a trip to the shop for them meant: a hard-earned dirham’s worth of cigarettes. Clearly the only thing better than the anticipation of a hit of nicotine was the hit itself; I watched bliss overcome them both as they lit up, as their lungs were warmed and the smoke got flowing. I was introduced to the card players, but when I try to hold a conversation in Arabic I get boring real fast. Once my novelty had worn off my friends dragged me outside into the quiet drizzle. We found a trough of earth which had been scooped away by a bulldozer, and we hunkered down there to shelter from the weather. My two companions looked like naughty schoolboys smoking their cigarettes behind a wall. Away from work, away from their wives, their giddiness was contagious. We joked and jabbered until dusk.
Back at home Said’s wife was preparing dinner. The floor of the living room was strewn with children who had their noses stuck into bilingual homework books. Feeling like a kid myself I pulled out my Tachelhit textbooks and started studying, promising myself the next time a family hosted me for a night, I’d at least be able to thank them in their own language.